Why the visionaries must triumph over the apparatchiks

9th May 1997 at 01:00
At recent conferences it has become increasingly apparent to me that there are two distinct types of people in primary education. They reveal fundamentally different approaches, talk different languages and do not appear to understand each other.

On the one hand are the people wedded to the status quo, in maintaining and managing the existing system. They can be heard saying things such as "I live in the real world and that means having to deal with incompetent teachers. " Their vocabulary is littered with words such as "targets", "standards" and "competencies". Some of these people are the apparatchiks who work for the numerous agencies of control. They take the world as they find it and pursue their careers. They adapt to the system and deliver what is necessary. And one has to add, with a certain admiration, that they prosper, in terms of money or holidays, or both. As one constituent said of his MP: "He did very well ... for himself."

On the other hand I keep coming across the other type of primary practitioner, the one who has vision and excitement, who believes in the transforming powers of education both for the individual and society. Such people are not satisfied with the status quo since they know that there is a huge gap between the abilities of young children and their achievement, between what is and what could be. They are the visionaries whose vocabulary contains words such as "imagination", "concepts" and "excitement".

Perhaps it seems inevitable that there are different kinds of people engaged in education. Perhaps it is inevitable that the bureaucrats should dominate. But it is also a pity.

Those who dominate the system and control it actually do little to raise standards, whatever their rhetoric. They support the status quo. The national curriculum is the great example of a system that satisfies the desire for control, with imposed inputs and outputs, with a heavy emphasis on measurement. This controlled system is so culturally enshrined that the visionaries are despised rather than feared, ignored rather than perceived as a threat.

The irony is that the system to which people adapt or are made to adapt is constantly being meddled with and changed. It is both the enshrining of the status quo and a constant insistence that it is systems rather than people or ideas that matter.

It is the visionaries who have consistent ideas, who actually have a coherent body of knowledge that is agreed across countries and across time. And these ideas are not just visions but based on empirical evidence. The ideas work.

But the people in the system protect themselves. They say that "the excellent drives out the good" - as if teachers were, like the bureaucrats, threatened by new ideas. They are dismissed as "seeking after the impossible" or of not "living in the real world". Thus does the system keep itself busy working without making any deep change.

If we want a real improvement to education, it is the visionaries who believe in it who should lead. This belief needs to be culturally embedded rather than dismissed as an impossible dream.

Someone asked whether teachers are demoralised and de-professionalised or still full of energy and vision. The answer is both. No one doubts the stress they are under with so many externally imposed demands and conditions that justify the existence of an ever greater and more expensive bureaucracy. But no one should doubt the creative energy and flow that is still so often apparent, despite the conditions.

The self-perpetuating oligarchy is out of tune with those doing the real work. This is not to blame individuals but to question the way that the system operates almost for its own sake. This is indeed the real world in the most cynical sense, not just suggesting that teachers are not capable of much, but trying to ensure that this is the case. For all the talk of standards and accountability, the system has very low expectations of teachers, and even lower ones of children.

* Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield.

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